Enshrining the Voice gives best chance for Closing the Gap, Albanese says

Enshrining a constitutional Voice to parliament will bring better practical outcomes and give the best chance for Closing the Gap, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will say in a major address on the referendum on Sunday.

Albanese will also flatly reject opposition calls for the government to legislate the Voice at once, pointing out that the call from Indigenous people is for it to be in the Constitution.

The government will introduce the legislation for the referendum, with the wording of the question, before the end of March. This will be followed by a parliamentary inquiry lasting at least six weeks.

The PM, outlining the timing in a Guardian podcast, said the legislation would then be debated and voted on in the May-June budget session. Once it is passed, the referendum then must be held not earlier than two months and 33 days after that, and not later than six months. That put the timeframe between September and December, he said.

In his address to a Chifley Research Centre conference – released ahead of its Sunday delivery – Albanese highlights positive results from the justice reinvestment model in Bourke to argue the value of consultation. Co-designed by Aboriginal people and run by the locals, the community takes responsibility for the rehabilitation of young offenders instead of their being sent to jail.

In this case, “the community’s voice was heard – and that saved lives”.

“We know that when governments listen to the people on the frontline, when we build from the ground up, when we trust in the wisdom and experience and earned knowledge of country and culture and kinship, we get better results.

“And better results are desperately needed,” Albanese says.

“Every Closing the Gap report confronts us with the reality that many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people lead lives of lesser opportunity.”

He says the failures in Closing the Gap “are not failures borne of a shortage of goodwill, or good intentions. Rarely even is it a lack of investment or resources.

“Governments on both sides have invested billions. But by and large, we have been repeating the same process and expecting a different outcome.

“Imposing decisions from Canberra. Mostly, with the best of intentions. But assuming that one size will fit all. And ignoring the wisdom of community,” Albanese says.

“Enshrining a Voice in the Constitution is our best chance to change that, because it has come from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people themselves.”

Albanese says that in the course of the year, there will be more information about the Voice for people to examine, but its mechanics will not be written into the Constitution.

He urges the parliament to embrace the Voice “as a vehicle for Closing the Gap and improving lives”.

Rejecting the calls for legislation before constitutional change, Albanese says the Uluru Statement from the Heart was the product of five years of consultation among Indigenous people and “in 2017 they produced a very clear request for recognition and a voice in the Constitution”.

Also, putting the Voice into the Constitution “sends a message about the strength and substance of the body.

“Not just to the government of the day or the parliament of the moment but also to the people we want the Voice to serve, the people we want engaging with it.

“It sends a message to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people: we’re serious about making this work, over the long-term.

“Not as a project of one government – but as an enduring national priority.”

Albanese, who has the Uluru statement on his office wall, says the referendum will be an opportunity for Australians “to show their best qualities: their generosity, their sense of fairness, their optimism for the future”.

On Friday at national cabinet all premiers and chief ministers signed a statement of intent to work “collaboratively to support a constitutionally enshrined Voice”.

Meanwhile, in the coming week the federal cabinet and the Northern Territory government will consider a report recommending the reimposition of alcohol bans in NT community. Albanese favours the move.

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